A year on, Quebec town remains in grip of 'train from hell'

Tue Jun 24, 2014 7:07am EDT
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By Richard Valdmanis

LAC-MEGANTIC Quebec (Reuters) - Each time a train rumbles past her house and the clothing shop where she works, Lucie Roy relives the moment last year when explosions leveled much of her neighborhood - and she and her two children narrowly escaped injury.

"I freak out inside when I feel that train shake the ground," she said, looking out a window at the tracks and the blast zone, an open pit crawling with heavy machinery. "I'm doing my best to move on, but it is hard when I have to face my nightmare on a daily basis."

This picturesque lakeside town nestled in the pine-covered hills of eastern Quebec is slowly rebuilding after a train loaded with crude oil crashed in flames in the downtown core nearly a year ago, destroying dozens of buildings and killing 47 people in one of North America's worst rail accidents.

The July 6, 2013, tragedy has become a symbol of what can go wrong when industry ships dangerous cargo on an aging rail system. Oil transport by rail has surged fiftyfold since 2008, when the boom in North American oil production began to overwhelm traditional pipeline networks.

In the incident's aftermath, regulators in Canada and the United States sought to shore up safety with a slew of new rules. But Lac-Megantic is still waiting for recovery and reassurance.

"To move on, the town needs to be repaired and people also need to know that this can never happen again," said the Rev. Steve Lemay of St. Agnes Church, a stone structure on a hill that overlooked the blast. "Right now, we can't pretend that is the case.”

The slow pace of recovery has frustrated residents, entrepreneurs and public officials. Hopes that the scores of businesses dislodged by the explosions could restart by the summer tourist season have been dashed by red tape and decontamination work in the blast zone that is expected to drag on for months. Meanwhile, housing prices have slumped.

"There is still a lot of uncertainty, even after a year," said Isabelle Halle, director of the Lac-Megantic Chamber of Commerce. "It is palpable, and it is very discouraging for people who, ultimately, just want their lives back."   Continued...

Workers work in downtown Lac-Megantic, November 21, 2013. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger